Right. Now, the thing is, I think it's fair to say that the author of that blog is probably going to heaven whereas I most certainly am not. However, the thought of giving someone who is homeless a 'blessing bag' with deodorant and no mouthwash in case they manage to get pissed on it, and a bible with a 'message of hope' (to be fair, the bible idea is in the comments, not the blog post) rubs me up so far the wrong way I pretty much come out on the other side, grinding my teeth. I promise you that this isn't a rant against Christians, of whom, in real life, I have met precisely zero who would proselytise in such a crass and condescending way, as opposed to many many many who do genuine and sensitive good: besides, I'm religious (I know you can't tell): I believe in God. Not in the form the people in those comments do, admittedly. But she doesn't mind ;-).
I've been trying to think about why I'm having such a negative reaction to someone who is trying to do a kind thing - and a kind thing which might be appreciated by most of the people she does it to. I don't know.
Anyway, I've considered, and I think this is why: do you know what separates someone who is homeless from someone who is, well, me or you? Nothing. Literally, nothing. I can say to you quite honestly that there have been many times in my life when I have not been entirely self-supporting, when I have been on a bit of a self-destructive streak, and when pulling myself up by my bootstraps was not an option, and when if my situation had been different, things might have been worse for me. Really, though, can anyone say any different? The reason I'm sitting here in a warm house blogging on a new Apple Mac, and not on the steps at Jimmy's Night Shelter isn't because I'm a better person. It's because of a number of things, I imagine, but it probably basically comes down to background, privilege (I mean this in quite a wide sense but still, privilege), social support and safety nets. Are any of those to my credit? I don't think they are. Do you?
You know what you could do if you meet a homeless person who asks you for money, instead of giving them a bag of what you think they need and a bloody Bible? (or a bloody any other religious text?) You could do this:
- If you don't want to give them any money, you could look them in the eye, smile, and say, sorry, no.
- You could give them some money. They might spend it on alcohol or drugs, or they might not. You might feel they should have the choice, like you do. I was a bit nervous yesterday lunchtime, so I downed a glass of wine quite quickly, and cheered up. What makes that an acceptable choice, however, is that it was a glass of Pinot Grigio with friends in Pizza Express, rather than a can of Special Brew on a bench.
- You could carry deodorant etc about in a ziplock baggie and you could offer them the choice of that or a fiver, or whatever, and see what they prefer.
- You could decide your money is more effective given to a local homeless shelter, in which case, feel free to go to number one.
I don't mean to do depressing ranting blog posts, really I don't. Charity, though: it's complicated. It just is. As I get older and more cynical the less I believe in charity at all, and the more I think that we're just all the same, and that if I have more for the moment I should help out, if you have more at another time then it's your turn. And when it's my turn to be helped, please don't bring me deodorant unless I ask for deodorant. I might: I don't know. But give me cash so I can choose. Or come and share a bottle of Pinot with me. We can drink it together.
I'm going straight to hell, aren't I? :-(
Edited to add, I just wanted to leave a link to an excellent Cambridge magazine produced by homeless people, Flack - here is a link to the back issues, which you can read online. The point of it is (or one of the points of it is) to break down barriers between homeless and not-homeless people. I think it's really interesting and I buy it doggedly from the local Wholefood Co-operative. Going by one of the articles in the March issue what we should be really putting in blessing bags is condoms and tampax...